20 Famous Actors Who ‘Disappeared’ After Their Prime


Making it to the top is hard but staying there may be even harder. The ridiculous cliché ridden 1967 show biz camp classic Valley of The Dolls is a stupid, foolish film in very many ways but it does get at least one thing right: while making it to the top in “the business” is tough, the real struggle may well be in staying up there. It takes talent, versatility, and/or luck to keep audiences interested and coming over enough time to have a real career.

In 1932’s backstage saga, Morning Glory. veteran trouper C. Aubrey Smith warns self-impressed ingénue Katherine Hepburn, right after her initial night of triumph in the theater, that she must guard against being a “morning glory,” someone who peaks at the beginning and then fades away.

Sadly, guarding against such a fate is easier said than done. Some have no real talent and are lucky to have been up there at all. Others had talent and, by rights, should have made it but timing, circumstances or temperament just didn’t cooperate and the person’s moment of triumph was also their swan song, at least as far as being at the top goes.

Also, it must be noted, the individuals aren’t necessarily one shot wonders but may, in fact, have been hot for a few back to back films and then went cold. Below are some prime examples of how slippery the slope can be.


1. Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People)

Ordinary People

In the days leading up to the Oscar ceremony of 1981 Timothy Hutton appeared on “The Today Show” and interviewer Bryant Gumbel asked him if he’d ever heard of the Oscar curse. In his rather studied, ingenuous-young-man-of-serious-demeanor way the actor demurred that, no, he had never heard of such a thing.

Wonder what he’d say if asked that question now? Surely there are fewer examples of what Oscar can do to a career than his. Though he was the son of the late 1960s and 70s actor Jim Hutton , the younger Hutton, who had not been raised by his estranged father, seemed to come out of nowhere.

He had done a few things on TV when director Robert Redford plucked him out of obscurity for the central role of Conrad, a young man greatly disturbed by the accidental death of his older brother and that death’s impact on his family, especially on his icy mother (memorably played by TV comedy star Mary Tyler Moore).

The film, adapted from an acclaimed best-selling novel of that day, was Ordinary People and it became the must-see film of 1980 for the tasteful, culturally-minded set. Paramount also cannily latched on to the public’s interest and excitement in a young and promising potential star and managed to promote the film into a multi-Oscar-winning hit, including one for young Mr. Hutton, who was unfairly wedged into the supporting category.

The sad fact, though, is that one can’t stay young forever and the words “magnetic” and “sexy” really didn’t come to mind in describing the lanky, nice enough looking young actor who didn’t show a great deal of depth and range in subsequent outings.

The failure of Sidney Lumet’s Daniel, in which the actor played the haunted son of a long dead couple, obviously based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was a major blow, as was a rather short-lived marriage to more established actress Debra Winger. Since then it’s been all TV and supporting roles in occasional films such as Kinsey.


2. Kate Hudson (Almost Famous)


Kate Hudson and Timothy Hutton could have had a profitable discussion, or least commiserate with one another. Both resemble famous actor parents and both had beginner’s luck largely predicated on that fact, followed up by nothing much good.

Hudson, who not only shared the good looks of her mother, Goldie Hawn, and has a similar vibe, was chosen, despite having very little professional experience, for the prime role of groupie queen, “Penny Layne,” in writer-director Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical period piece, Almost Famous, which was based on the author’s experiences as a correspondent in the rock scene of the 1970s.

Audiences were taken with the actress’ lively performance as the free-living young woman of another, freer age and, together with a lot of drummed-up PR interest in her personal life, Hudson ended up in the spotlight and wrangled a supporting Oscar nomination.

However, there were already ominous rumblings against her. There had been whispers even during the making of the film that Hudson wasn’t really giving a cohesive performance and that the director was coaxing it out of her a little at the time and working hard to put it all together in the editing room.

By contrast, veteran Oscar-winner Frances McDormand was also nominated in that category for her work as the main character’s demanding mother and the difference is quite telling. Hudson’s loss was reportedly greeted with lots of cheers in the press. Though she’s still alive and working and still gets a lot of tabloid press, films such as How to Lose a Guy in 30 Days and an extended guest shot on TV’s “Glee” show a career promise that’s unlikely to be fulfilled.


3. Tippi Hendren(The Birds)/Melanie Griffith (Working Girl)


To continue a theme, Melanie Griffith is yet another show biz offspring and, though she doesn’t look or sound much like her once well-known mom, Tippi Hedren, they do share something in common career-wise.

A well-known story among film fans is how Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma were watching early morning TV while preparing for their new film, The Birds, and saw an alluring young woman in a diet drink commercial. Looking for a new version of the departed Grace Kelly, they subsequently cast model Tippi Hedren, who had no acting experience and…did not quite make her a star.

Miss Hedren was more accomplished than someone with no training might have been but there was also something a bit cold and starchy about her. The story of her falling out with Hitchcock while making their second film, Marnie (a latter day cult item) is well known and the actress has been living off this moment in time for years but The Birds was her only true moment in the cinematic sun.

Her daughter, Melanie, was another story in many ways but similar in others. Unlike mom, Griffith had been acting in films since she was a young girl, appearing in such interesting New Hollywood films as Night Moves and Smile. She seemed to be on the brink of something with her work in such interesting cult items as Body Double, Stormy Monday, and, especially, Something Wild, which may be her finest hour as an actress.

Unlike her mother, she was also a very sensuous actress in these films. Too bad none of these were hits or her career might have gone a different way. Instead, her elevation came with prestige director Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, playing a proletariatian young lady with a combination of talent and duplicity who ends up getting it all.

Many early champions, such as renowned critic Pauline Kael, felt that the actress had sold out and become bland. Kael warned that if Griffith’s babyish voice was her true and only one that she had better be very careful about the roles she chose. With a big hit, an Oscar nod, and loads of PR over her reunion with first husband Don Johnson (very hot at the time), she didn’t listen. Nothing she’s done since has resembled a hit either at the box office or critically and she looks more and more like a parody of the kind of roles she used to play.


4. Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl)

Pandora’s Box

This entry may seem to be a sacrilege. There is a mighty Brooks cult in the film world and her modern day fans seek out all of her work and the film historians quite often fall all over themselves writing about her (and she was, at her best, a miracle) but, in fact, she was a Hollywood flop, mostly, even by her own admission, due to her own obstinate behavior.

She had one great burst of excellence before many years of obscurity and then cult stardom as she herself lay sick and dying in a sparsely furnished room in Rochester, New York paid for by the generosity of an old flame. The beauteous Brooks, a petite dancer with the face of a knowing porcelain doll crowned by a famed stylish bob of dark hair, had found entrance into Hollywood pictures quite easy from her start with the Denishawn dance company.

Paramount wanted to make her a star but she seldom got along with co-workers or the front office and her better films (It’s the Old Army Game with pal W.C. Fields and the extraordinary Beggars of Life with Wallace Beery) always seemed to benefit others in the cast. In 1928 talkies were coming in and the studios were weeding their rosters.

Paramount offered to keep her on at a greatly reduced salary but she decided, instead, to take an out-of-the-blue offer from young, but acclaimed German director G.W Pabst, who was making a new film version of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s famed plays “The Earth’s Spirit” and “Pandora’s Box.” A special type was needed for the role of Lulu, the rootless, amoral main character who causes death and destruction by her very presence.

Brooks, an instinctually intellectual and sexually sophisticated woman, responded with a superb, knowing performance and was even better in the director’s follow-up The Diary of a Lost Girl. Alas, talkie-crazed America ignored these silent triumphs from another land and Brooks foolishly ignored Pabst’s pleas to learn German and to continue working with him in talkies.

She had offended Hollywood in many ways and Paramount gave her a lot of bad press but she did have comeback offers (she might well have played the role Jean Harlow ended up portraying in the classic The Public Enemy had she not haughtily blown off William Wellman, her director on Beggars of Life). She went her own way…down a wayward path.


5. Luise Rainer (The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Eeath)

Luise Rainer, right, with William Powell in The Great Ziegfeld, 1936

It’s remarkable to think that many great stars, people that the general movie-watching audience really remembers, went through their careers Oscarless. This is even more jaw-dropping considering the fact that a largely untrained Austrian woman, brand new to films, won two Oscars back to back, only to be out of the business within about five years’ time.

To understand the story of Luise Rainer, is to understand the major Hollywood studios’ practice of having “shadow” people on their payroll in the vintage years of the studio system. These people were always very similar to a big, often difficult star the studio wanted to keep in line by scaring the star with the possibility that they could be replaced by a newer version. None of it ever worked. The closest anyone came was the excellent Ida Lupino, who was supposed to be giving Bette Davis sleepless nights at Warner Brothers.

Rainer was discovered and promoted in order to make Greta Garbo quake in her shoes. In order to try and accomplish this, MGM heavily promoted the actresses’s work in the lavish bio-pic The Great Ziegfeld in 1936. She gave a very short performance in a very long film, playing the unhappy actress/first wife of the title character, a famed impresario. Her big moment was a scene that looks tacked on. The character sadly calls her former husband to wish him well on his new marriage.

There was no cutaway to the person on the other end of the line, as was usual in that era, so the actress had to hold the scene alone, novel for the time. It was touted as the most perfect piece of acting on film and Rainer won many awards besides the Oscar (and hers is still the shortest performance ever to win in that category).

The next year she played a stoic Chinese peasant, with very few lines, in the mammoth adaptation of the best seller The Good Earth. She was a pretty convincing Oriental but MGM pushed her to another Oscar in order to put Garbo in her place as she was nominated that year for one of her major performances, Camille.

After that things started going wrong. Garbo’s own career started running out of steam. Ranier’s marriage to playwright Clifford Odets went on the rocks (more on that later),and she sassed MGM kingpin Louis B. Mayer. He told her he had made her and could break her and she huffed that God made her and it’s too bad that the Almighty didn’t directly run the studio. Given one bad script after another, she was soon history—though she had the last laugh as a human being, living to the age of 104 and getting to tell history all her way.


6. Frances Farmer (Come and Get It)


The patron saint of emotionally disturbed Hollywood actresses, Frances Farmer was more promising than anything else. The product of a troubled home featuring a lethal mother, Farmer had come to hate movies in her time as an usherette in her youthful days in Seattle.

She wanted to be a stage actress for she felt the cinema “false.” She should have obeyed her instincts for she and Hollywood were an ill fit. She had taken an offer from Paramount when stage roles in New York didn’t materialize. Paramount obviously only saw an attractive blonde who could serve as leading lady to the lot’s male stars, as she immediately did opposite Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range, her biggest picture for the studio.

With nothing pressing for her to do, the studio loaned her out to producer Samuel Goldwyn, the biggest independent producer in Hollywood, for a lavish historical drama concerning a corrupt timber baron in the nineteenth century entitled Come and Get It. Farmer was thrilled at playing the dual role of an emotionally honest woman reduced to becoming a prostitute in a logging settlement and the woman’s own daughter, outwardly pure but more of a manipulator than mom ever thought of being.

Farmer had been chosen by director Howard Hawks, who admired tough women on and off screen. Too bad he and Goldwyn had a falling out well into filming, causing William Wyler, who was not simpatico with the actress, to take over. Wyler didn’t hesitate to bad mouth her and she proved difficult with the execs at Paramount.

The fact that her open affair with Clifford Odets ruined his marriage to Luise Rainer didn’t endear her to the town. The studio put her in minor films and dropped her option. Few others in Hollywood wanted to give her another chance. The resulting story of madness, incarceration, questionable medical procedures and other horrors is the stuff of Hollywood’s dark history.